Univer­sity of Ottawa prof’s ‘bio­hack­ing’ bril­liance pays off

Ottawa Business Journal - Techopia - - Front Page - BY STEPHEN KARMAZYN

Most peo­ple might not see how grow­ing a hu­man ear from an ap­ple could be the key to dis­rupt­ing the multi­bil­lion-dol­lar re­gen­er­a­tive health sec­tor.

Then again, most peo­ple aren’t An­drew Pelling.

The Univer­sity of Ottawa pro­fes­sor and first Ottawa TED Fel­low rose to promi­nence for his “bio­hack­ing” ex­per­i­ments that in­cluded carv­ing an ap­ple into the shape of an ear and grow­ing hu­man tis­sue on it. The cel­lu­lose struc­ture of the ap­ple be­came the “scaf­fold­ing” that sup­ported the hu­man skin.

Since then, the 37-year-old Canada Re­search Chair in bi­ol­ogy and physics has per­formed tri­als on mice that have shown some prom­ise, with blood ves­sels even grow­ing into the ap­ples.

That re­search even­tu­ally earned Pelling an ap­point­ment as a 2016 TED Fel­low, one of only two Cana­di­ans and 21 peo­ple cho­sen world­wide.

At a re­cent event spon­sored by HUB Ottawa, Pelling talked about his ex­pe­ri­ence with TED as well as his re­search.

He said he is look­ing into ex­pand­ing his “bio­phys­i­cal ma­nip­u­la­tion” lab into the By­Ward Mar­ket in the hope of be­com­ing more con­nected to the com­mu­nity. He en­vi­sions peo­ple com­ing in and pos­ing ques­tions, sug­gest­ing ideas and oth­er­wise turn­ing his lab into more of an open-source fa­cil­ity.

This one of the many ways that Pelling be­lieves his fa­cil­ity is dif­fer­ent from the av­er­age univer­sity re­search unit.

“I made my whole lab an ex­per­i­ment from day one,” he says. “I’m young, I don’t want to run a tra­di­tional lab. Un­like many labs – and there’s noth­ing wrong with this – but many labs are fo­cused on a spe­cific dis­ease or spe­cific prob­lem. Fo­cus­ing on one prob­lem … for 30 years of my life just scares the hell out of me.”

Pelling and his re­searchers aren’t afraid to try a bunch of “crazy” ideas, he says. Even if not all of them work, he adds, the process can lead to un­ex­pected break­throughs.

“We ask some pretty wild, crazy ques­tions, or at least on the sur­face (they) seem kind of nuts, but we test and val­i­date them with sci­en­tific rigour. What you end up do­ing is dis­cov­er­ing all sorts of things that you never thought were pos­si­ble. That’s led to some re­ally cool in­no­va­tions. We’ve spun out a com­pany now. There’s all sorts of cool things go­ing on.”

The com­pany, called Spi­der­wort, sells bio­hack­ing ma­te­rial and open-sourced lab equip­ment to help peo­ple grow what Pelling and his team cre­ate, mean­ing cus­tomers can be­come bio­hack­ers from the com­fort of their own kitchens.

Pelling wants to ex­pand the man­date of his lab as far as he can.

“What the work­ing hy­poth­e­sis is, if you put a bunch of re­ally cre­ative, cu­ri­ous peo­ple in a space and give them re­sources to fail and try things, then great things will hap­pen,” he says. “And that’s what’s been hap­pen­ing.”

Pelling hopes his re­search will lead to a dis­rup­tion of the re­gen­er­a­tive medicine busi­ness. Cur­rently, re­plac­ing bone and skin of­ten ne­ces­si­tates the use of ca­dav­ers or prod­ucts de­rived from an­i­mals, a process that can pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive.

Pelling says that a loonie-sized piece of bio­ma­te­rial can cost US$1,000, whereas he and his lab can make the same prod­uct for a frac­tion of a penny grow­ing the same ma­te­rial from plants.

“For once we may have de­creased the cost of health care for ma­te­rial (that) is re­ally de­ploy­able and ac­ces­si­ble to any­body on the planet,” he says, not­ing the re­gen­er­a­tive medicine sec­tor is pro­jected to be worth $67 bil­lion by 2020, up from $16.4 bil­lion in 2013.

Pelling has been some­thing of a world trav­eller since his TED Fel­low ap­point­ment. Af­ter re­turn­ing from a TED Talk in Van­cou­ver last month, he headed to Geneva for the Gath­er­ing for Open Sci­ence Hard­ware hosted by the Euro­pean Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Nu­clear Re­search.

Pelling is lov­ing his in­tro­duc­tion to the TED net­work, not­ing he made valu­able con­tacts in Van­cou­ver.

“There’s def­i­nitely some pay­off down the road. I’m not ready to an­nounce any­thing (but) I think there’s some pretty in­ter­est­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties com­ing up.”

“Like my new tele­phone, my com­puter works just fine, my cal­cu­la­tor is per­fect, but Lord, I miss my mind!”


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